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Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Hold Honda Your Hats

Japan are in danger of becoming the World Cup’s surprise package. A sterner test than those that preceded their progress to the last 16 awaits in the form of Paraguay this afternoon, but after a team performance against Denmark that had all and sundry salivating, Japan are right to feel fearless.

Japan have become fixtures at FIFA’s four-yearly showpiece since they first qualified for the competition in 1998, before which the team’s only achievements of note were an Asian Cup triumph in 1992 and an Olympic bronze medal in 1968.

Following their first World Cup appearance, Japan have secured two more Asian Cups (2000 and 2004 – meaning they have won three of the last five tournaments), qualified for the last 16 of the World Cup twice (2002, when they were hosts, and 2010) and become the only team outside the Americas to be invited to play in the Copa America (1999 and 2011). This is remarkable progress, particularly when you consider that the J-League’s current incarnation, and with it the piquing of Japanese interest in football, was only launched in 1993.

Japan’s resulting attempt to qualify for the World Cup in the USA – the first time they had entered qualification with a fully professional national team – ended with the ‘Agony of Doha’ in 1994, in which they narrowly missed out on World Cup place, with a last-minute Iraqi goal in a 2-2 draw enabling South Korea to progress to the finals on goal difference. But the professional structure was in place and qualification followed in 1998. Though it ended in three defeats (to Argentina, Croatia and, a little embarrassingly, Jamaica), Japan’s first World Cup experience was followed by their first ever venture into the last 16 as co-hosts in 2002. Little wonder then, that coach Takeshi Okada speaks of a long-term vision.

“I personally don't want to base everything on just one result or just one competition. We need to have a longer-term vision, to estimate and evaluate the level of Japanese football,” Okada said. That evaluation wasn’t looking particularly positive ahead of their first group matches, as friendly defeats to Serbia, South Korea, England and Ivory Coast – with difficulties in front of goal and criticism of the coach rife – raised concerns over Japan’s ability to compete with the Dutch and highly-rated African representatives Cameroon.

If the victory over the Indomitable Lions came as a surprise, then the manner in which they dismantled Denmark made the world sit up and pay attention. Not only was a star made of striker Keisuke Honda, but he and midfielder Yasuhito Endo actually scored direct from free kicks. Honda’s sublime turn to set up Japan’s third was worth watching all on its own.

Okada has remained relatively unmoved throughout and views his side’s last 16 match thus: "It will be a challenge for us as we try to get into the last eight for the first time, so we will be doing our absolute utmost to address this challenge.” Paraguay boast an extremely mean defence, having conceded just once in the group stages and, like all the South American sides this summer, are set up to press high up the pitch. They start as favourites and will provide a thorough examination of the progress Okada feels Japanese football is making.

For all the talk of the African sides’ chances in this World Cup and despite Ghana’s progress, Asia appears to be advancing at least alongside – if not ahead of – teams from the African continent. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given commercial interest in the Japanese team is rife – in 2006, sponsorship for the Blue Samurai generated over £16.5m – but it is a spectacular achievement nonetheless. They have the infrastructure in place and as Okada says, “if you only pile bricks vertically they will eventually fall down, so we have to support from both sides… we need to be aware of the journey and path which is still ongoing”. Whether they reach the end of the road against Paraguay this afternoon or not, it has been a memorable campaign. Rob MacDonald

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